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The holocaust taught us that a different world cannot be made by indifferent people

Acting against injustice: Irena Sendler.
Acting against injustice: Irena Sendler.

By Br Brian Grenier

ON October 16, 1946, in the gymnasium of the Nuremberg Prison, 10 prominent Nazi political and military leaders were hanged for their part in the unspeakable savagery of the Holocaust. 

Conspicuous by his absence on that day was a man who, in the minds of many of his contemporaries, should have suffered the same fate – Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect (1915-81). 

On his release, after serving 20 years in Berlin’s Spandau Prison, he stated, “I did not hate them (the Jews); I was indifferent to them. My crime was far worse because I was not an anti-Semite.”

Unlike his compatriot Adolf Eichmann, who subcontracted his moral judgment in these matters to his superiors (“I had my orders”), Speer, if he can be believed, made no judgment at all.

It is incontestable that Speer’s passivity in the face of horrendous evil served the cause of evil well. How could it be otherwise? 

It was people like him whom Elie Wiesel, a Jewish survivor of the death camps and the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, had in mind when he said in an interview on NBC’s Today Show in 1974, “We tell the tale of the Holocaust to save the world from indifference”.

In this connection, I recall a remark that Anthony Anderson, the genial Presbyterian minister in George Bernard Shaw’s play, The Devil’s Disciple, made to his wife Judith: “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.” 

Indifference and the wilful spiritual blindness that sustains it lie at the very heart of what, in our catechesis, we commonly describe as sins of omission – the focus of much, perhaps the greater part, of Jesus’ moral teaching. 

Nowhere is this spelled out more clearly than in Matthew’s account of the Last Judgment.

Those who are condemned, the goats who take their place on the judge’s left hand, plead their innocence on the grounds that they simply did not advert to the plight of their brothers and sisters in need (Matthew 25:31-46). 

They are like the man about whom Raoul Follereau, the French-born pioneer advocate for people afflicted with leprosy, wrote: “I had a dream – a man came to the judgment seat of God. He said, ‘You see, Lord, I have done nothing evil, dishonest or impious. Lord, my hands are clean’. ‘But,’ says the Lord, ‘They are empty’!”

Other examples from the Gospels come readily to mind.

It strains credibility to suggest that the rich man in Jesus’ parable was unaware of the destitute, sore-ridden, dog-befriended Lazarus at his gate (Luke 16:19-31). 

Were the Pharisee and the Levite on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho so indifferent to the fellow human being who fell prey to robbers that they gave him no more than a passing glance (Luke 10:25-37)? 

Did the potential rock-throwers who dragged before Jesus a woman charged with adultery – a woman very likely more sinned against than sinning – see her as nothing more than an affront to their self-righteousness (John 8:1-11)?

Returning to the Holocaust theme with which we began these reflections, let us acknowledge the host of people who did not turn a blind eye to the horrors around them.

For our edification and as a yardstick against we might measure our own perception of where injustice is rife today and our willingness to intervene, we might take account of the lives of such people as: Raoul Wallenberg, Irena Sendler, Sir Nicholas Winton, Oskar Schindler, Carl Lutz, Pastor André Trocmé and his wife Magda, and the more than 11,000 “righteous Gentiles” who are named and honoured at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem. 

Very readable biographies of many of them have been written.

Asked why, at considerable risk of her own life, she harboured traumatised Jews during the war years, one elderly Polish woman replied, “Because the time is now and I am here”.

Br Brian Grenier is a Brisbane-based Christian Brother who has had wide teaching experience both in Australia and in Rome where he lectured in an international renewal program. His writings include several books published by St Pauls and columns on Scripture, spirituality and religious education in Australian and overseas journals. 

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